By the very way the word is spelled, it implies success. It must be relevant only to those who are successful, right? So, why do so many business owners feel as if they have failed when they face decisions related to succession?
It could be a very happy time. He or she has built a company; now it is time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. No one deserves time off more than the owner who built the business.
Yet, somehow letting go feels like giving in, failing, losing.
Questions of succession are often initiated when the leaders of businesses are getting tired, thinking about retirement, wanting to play golf on Wednesdays, or facing health problems. So the discussion about leadership succession does not feel like a conversation about their strengths. It feels like current limitations are being exaggerated in other peoples’ minds and overshadow any sense of appreciation for the existing leaders’ past contributions.
When the discussion of the passage of control comes up, it can easily feel to the owner that he/she is being discarded, taken for granted, and worse, taken for a ride.
Succession discussions are also initiated when a potential successor has become impatient and has checked out other options. The discussions sound more like negotiations or ultimatums.
We have one business owner/client who used to dig his feet into the ground when the topic of succession came up.
“Why should I find a way to pass my company to them when they talk to me that way? I am still the president. How dare they tell me what will or will not be done on proposals. I used to think that I owned this company. That does not seem to count much any more…They see themselves as my equals now and want to make decisions for the business. They will not make decisions here until I decide that they will. It will not be because they demand it.”
The management team of another client company had requested a special meeting with their owner. They had asked the owner to prepare a “worry list” prior to the meeting. What is the owner concerned about? What would they need to do to put the owner at ease? The owner came to the meeting prepared with the list. As the items were read, the managers became angrier and angrier. The owner felt set up.
“Why should I trust them when they do something like that to me? I responded to their questions in good faith and I am told that I am accusatory. They say that I am not around enough anymore to deserve to ask the nit-picking questions. I ask, nit-picking? They see my help as interference. Why should I back off when I know that they are making mistakes? I thought I had a management team in place that would not act like children. I was hoping that they would be ready by now. I was sure wrong about them.”
A third business owner/client faced the decision of succession within his family. He thought he had the plan all worked out. Then his son lost his driver’s license on a drunken-driving charge and shows less and less initiative in his current role within the business.
“How can I pass the business onto him now? How can he be so irresponsible? Is he trying to sell it? Doesn’t he know what he is throwing away? I wanted a legacy, but where will he take the business after I am gone? I am not sure I want to be around to see that.”
In all three real situations, the business owners are faced with turning over control of their businesses to people who do not seem to respect the owner any longer.
It is difficult to make objective decisions when one is unappreciated, disappointed, insulted, and taken for granted, let alone make decisions about succession involving the very people who make the owner feel that way.
Are the successors in these three companies inherently uncaring? Disrespectful? Unappreciative?
On the contrary, they are very caring, dedicated people who have become frustrated. Each was learning, growing, contributing, and looking forward to the future when he or she would be in a more senior position within the business. Only the future crept up on all of them. The future feels like the present.
These heirs apparently also became impatient with the owners. The owners were obviously getting tired. Things that used to interest and challenge the owners now bored them.
However, instead of taking time off, trusting others, and letting go, the owners continued half-heartedly in their roles. Sometimes the owners could make decisions. The next day, they would become indecisive again. The energetic leadership of yesterday was becoming a thing of the past for all three businesses.
The successors lacked sufficient authority to make real changes. The owners would return from long absences and not even notice how well things had been handled while they were gone. The successors had grown more and more frustrated.
“They think we take it for granted! What about us? We are still considered managers, not owners, yet we are the ones who really run this place. We can just imagine how fast these companies would go under if it weren’t for us.
“They have got a great deal. They get the big salaries, take all of the credit, stroll in and out whenever they want, and we are stuck with the problems. They retain all of the authority and do not have day-to-day responsibility any more.
“I am tired of being stepped on. When is it my turn, anyway? Do I have to wait for someone to drop dead? I cannot stand seeing everyone else pay for their ambivalence. If they valued me, they would see that I deserve my chance. I resent being placed in this position. I don’t want to give the owners ultimatums, but I am ready for something to change.”
The successors were reluctant to bring up the topic of succession. After all, their owners had been investing in their careers for a long time. It is not their place to demand another person’s job, or is it? If the owners felt ready to let go they would initiate such a conversation themselves, right? No one wanted to hurt the other person’s feelings. No one wanted to risk their current status and job security, so real discussions were withheld.
It is very difficult to objectively discuss job-related matters when one feels frustrated, taken for granted, helpless and impatient, let alone when the discussion essentially requires asking to take the job away from the person(s) who make one feel that way.
Successors have a very difficult time expressing feelings of appreciation, respect and understanding for the owners’ situation when they themselves are flooded with similar feelings.
The problem snuck up on everyone. Respect for the owners deteriorated a little bit each day, fueled by the helplessness each successor felt as he or she watched the companies–their companies–drift.
Also, the owners became more reluctant to pass their businesses on to people who seem so impatient, disrespectful, and selfish.
In each example, the people involved had waited until the topic of succession had become a personal matter before they discussed it. Each had given some lip service to it but had never committed their discussion to a written list of decisions or plan of action.
Succession is a part of a company’s strategic plan. It is a business topic, not only a personal matter. Decisions can then be made with the best interests of the business foremost in everyone’s minds while retaining the capacity to care about both owner(s) and successors.
It is important to remember that when and how an owner passes the baton affects everyone in the business, not just the owner and his successor.
Succession discussion, decisions and planning need to be included in a company’s regular review and update of its strategic plan. In rapidly growing businesses, the succession plan may need to be updated as often as every quarter.
When situations have reached the stage that these examples have, both owner and successor are thinking in terms of we/they or win/lose, which is a sign of trouble and very difficult negotiations. It is crucial to make succession decisions on a non-blaming basis. In the client situations described, we needed to defuse the explosive atmosphere before real decisions about succession could be addressed.
Also, key people will need to be aware of their own feelings and how others may respond to them. Notice the similarity in the words used to describe the feelings of both owners and successors in the real-life circumstances I have relayed.
On the surface, the owners’ and successors’ situations seem different from one another, but their feelings are similar. If you are in either position, increased awareness of how the other person might feel could help you be less defensive, less demanding, less attacking, and thus more effective for yourself and the business.